Maritime e-mail – How it’s grown and where it is heading

9 min read

GTMaritime’s Global Commercial Director Mike McNally (pictured below) explains the history and direction of maritime e-mail in this Q&A interview.

Q Looking back over time, I guess you can say that the breakthrough for satellite comms was GMDSS when e-mail became an option for almost every ship with an Inmarsat C system. But how has maritime e-mail evolved since then?

MM Yes, before then messaging with ships was done mostly by Telex. Ships with an Inmarsat A terminal had direct telex capability and for other ships communication was by radiotelex with a coast station as an intermediary.

When Inmarsat C came along it was initially used for Telex. Telex was used for a long time after maritime e-mail became an option for the simple reason there was a confirmation of receipt – something that e-mail still doesn’t have – and also because it had legal recognition whereas e-mail did not. That’s changed since and e-mail has taken over for some communications.

Another advantage of Telex was that it could be on a live connection and could be used for chat, whereas Inmarsat C messages were sent to and from ships on a store and forward basis.

To start with, Inmarsat C did not work with attached files. So, whatever needed to be communicated had to be within the text of the e-mail. This was a little different to what was happening ashore where attachments were commonly used for sending more information than was in the covering e-mail.

When attachments were used the maximum allowed was around 25MB. A lot for text but not so for data files.

In general, the amount of information being passed around as e-mail attachments has skyrocketed. And so has the need for urgent response. So we have seen a move towards more data and faster transmission demands from users in the maritime industry.

Q How widespread is the use of VSAT at the moment, and has it reduced the use of e-mail and costs of communications as dramatically as some said it would?

MM One thing is clear is that the prediction that use of maritime e-mail would fall off as VSAT become more prevalent hasn’t happened. Arguably that’s because when an operator made the move to VSAT, the fact that a service was being paid for meant that the natural impulse is to make as much use of it as possible.

Although a lot of data is now sent as pure data, a very large amount is still sent as e-mail attachments.

A number of clients have told us that they couldn’t have increased data transmission as much as they have if they had continued using L-Band services. Maritime communication costs are still a big item in the budget and as the move to VSAT has grown, some service providers who offer both VSAT and L-Band have protected their income by increasing costs for non-VSAT services.

Q What is the spread between data and e-mail use on ships at present and in what direction is this moving?

MM We can see that the use of e-mail is not declining. Just recently we had the first instance of the number of maritime e-mails over our service alone reaching one million messages in a day.

That was exceptional but as the growth rate continues it will only be a matter of months before that figure is reached regularly. People are using e-mail more for chat purposes because they now have continuous connectivity and that can increase the number of e-mails. On the global fleet scale the number of e-mails sent through ship communication systems could well exceed 10 million per day

On data we see that a lot of ships now have dedicated connections for data for things such as performance monitoring, updates for equipment and documents and the like. The amount of data is growing but a lot of customers still want to send data via e-mail, so we facilitate that as well with our services.

maritime email

Q Thinking about personal e-mail for crew and supernumeraries is there any data on how many ships open up e-mail facilities beyond official uses?

MM We do offer facilities for separating out crew e-mails from which we could estimate the spread but we find that is getting less and less use and crew are increasingly being invited to use the ship’s standard system and so it is not always possible to know what e-mails are business-related and which are private.

It is important for ship operators to put some parameters in place for crew so that large file attachments are limited as that can impact system efficiency. This is because in most systems, the pipeline for e-mail is separate from the data pipeline and large e-mail files can clog the e-mail facility.

We can work with operators to set up a system that best suits their profile which can include limiting file size attachments for each individual or originating e-mail address onboard so that only appropriate users have the ability to attach large files or have priority at busy times.

Q Cyber security is the main topic around communications and digitalisation at the moment. Can you say how much of the perceived threat is really due to insecure maritime e-mail systems?

MM  The cyber threat is very real, we have stopped over 200,000 malware attacks in the last six months. Spam is bad enough and many of these are seemingly innocuous, but a significant amount will have links that are damaging and open up system vulnerabilities.

It is possible to identify what appears to be spam and block addresses and domains but inevitably that will also block some genuine traffic and so systems cannot be too rigid as it would cause problems with important e-mails being blocked.

Q Educating crew about how to treat e-mails is one thing but not everybody follows rules so how can it be made safer?

MM Thinking about the three types of threats, spam, malware and phishing, malware can be blocked and quarantined by systems once the threat has been identified and defences built in.

With spam and phishing there is a judgement to be made. No system can be made that identifies and blocks them all so systems are not foolproof. The crew is then the ultimate defence.

Crews can be taught to recognise the threats. We do offer services to clients that help crew identify threats by sending harmless e-mails that test the recipients’ knowledge and actions.

There is no threat to the system if the wrong decision is made but it is recorded. In one case a customer requested these checks, and they were done multiple times over a period.

At the outset we recorded 40% penetration where an e-mail was responded to but by the second round most threats were being identified and penetration was almost completely eliminated. It was noticeable that e-mails that appeared to come from regulatory bodies were responded to most readily.

Q How can companies in the maritime industry best manage their e-mail systems to get best results?

MM We recognise that companies see value in homogenising their maritime e-mail. They like to have their company domains and prefer sending everything through that rather than having disparate systems for different applications. The systems they may be using can be any of several, for example Microsoft, Google or any other.

We can integrate this into our system so that whatever their current structures are and what they want them to be can all be customised and integrated giving all the benefits of our e-mail management and security but fitted within their corporate set up.